Director James Ponsoldt’s sharp take on Tim Tharp’s 2008 novel (Knopf) gives The Spectacular Now a higher level of maturity and complexity than most young adult book-to-movie adaptations. Party boy and high school senior Sutter Keely (the very affable Miles Teller) lives for the moment. He can smooth talk his way past a bar doorman or charm a teacher when he doesn’t turn in homework. Whether it’s 10 a.m. or in the middle of the day, it’s never too early for a buzz—he keeps his flask filled and in his back pocket. After being dumped by his girlfriend, Cassidy, the teen parties hard and wakes up passed out on a stranger’s front yard. Sutter comes to when he’s wakened up by a girl his age.
Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley, in full plain-Jane mode) knows Sutter’s name, but she’s only vaguely familiar to him; they don’t travel in the same social circles. He has no idea where his car is, so he accompanies his Good Samaritan, on her early morning paper route (no, it’s not a period piece) to search for it. Major manga-fan Aimee is a clean slate: she doesn’t cuss, has never had a boyfriend, and has only one friend. (And, she’s not exactly trendy: she has unicorn figurines in her bedroom.)
As their relationship starts to change, the class clown continuously deflects the truth, telling his best friend, who sees Aimee as a “strange choice for a rebound,” that he just wants her to tutor him in geometry. Yet, Sutter asks her out to a party in the woods, where she takes a sip from his offered flask—her first taste of alcohol. He rationalizes that he just wants to help Aimee increase her confidence, treating her like a pet project, with little thought of the repercussions.
The director’s attention to well-rounded, non-stereotypical characterization is spread evenly throughout the ensemble. A noteworthy example is how the film treats Cassidy, the pretty, popular, and blonde ex-girlfriend. It would have been easy to cast her as a shallow harpy, but the script gives actress Brie Larson an opportunity to flesh out the character. In a wistful scene, Cassidy gropes for words to explain what she wants from a boyfriend, finally getting out that ultimately, Sutter comes up short.
Habitually slouching with her arms crossed in front of her, Aimee’s the self-effacing and shy girl-next-door type. However, she’s not exactly a positive influence on Sutter, but an acquiescing enabler. She persistently ingratiates herself to him, joining in drink after drink.
Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, known for (500) Days of Summer, boil down Tharp’s novel, in which Sutter’s gift of gab and his justifications for always having 7UP and whisky at the ready take center stage. Neustadter and Weber whittle down the story line to focus it on his mentorship-turned-romance with Aimee. The book’s extraneous characters and digressions won’t be missed.
Though his narrative voice is less wise and grown-up than on the page (where he’s a big Dean Martin fan), on screen Sutter speaks more like an average 17-year-old ‘Joe’. Tharp set his story around Oklahoma City, but the movie could take place in any leafy suburb with a Kmart and a KFC lining the main drag. The biggest departure between the two is that the movie suddenly wraps things up as Sutter takes an initiative towards sobriety. It’s an abrupt move considering how everything else has unfolded in stages. It is only at this point that the movie spells out its themes.
The film will likely draw viewers to the book, and conversely, this adaptation will bring attention to director Ponsoldt’s earlier film, Smashed, which was equally alcohol soaked, about an elementary school teacher taking the wobbly road towards a booze-free life. Both movies could be considered versions of Days of Wine and Roses for millennials. The Spectacular Now would also make an ideal double feature with the equally smart and hip The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These two adaptations (along with the sadly little-seen Fat Kid Rules the World), have proven that there’s more to YA movies than magic potions or dystopia. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 2, and nationwide on August 23.
Director: James Ponsoldt
95 minutes (bluer than The Perks of Being a Wallflower but tame compared to cable TV)